Local Romani assembly member in Czech town seeks re-election, recommends running to others
Citizens of the Czech Republic will vote for new local assembly members next weekend (5 and 6 October 2018). News server Romea.cz has learned that at least 170 Romani candidates are running locally this year and, if elected, will be able to change the hand that is dealt at the city or municipal level.
Elections to one-third of the Senate are happening simultaneously with the local races. News server Romea.cz has interviewed David Ištok, a Romani community member who successfully ran last time for that office in Chomutov.
Ištok, who is 33 and works as a production line operator, is seeking re-election this year, running in 30th place on the "PRO! Chomutov" ("FOR! Chomutov") candidate list. He remains a member of the Green Party.
Q: You are the only Romani assembly member in Chomutov, the only one to be elected there ever. Now you are running for re-election, but you will not be at 11th place on the candidate list this time - you're in 30th place...
A: I am hoping to inspire more Romani people to run for office in Chomutov than have to date. Residents here are addressing many problems associated with the Romani minority and they need Romani partners who are not just familiar with Romani issues, but who also know Chomutov well. I did not expect to be elected last time, but I went to the local assembly with enormous enthusiasm and optimism. Today I must acknowledge that I was also rather naive. It was a victory to be elected, I had the feeling that from that moment on I could change the world, but I quickly saw through that. The truth is that political office is a brilliant means for changing your city or municipality, but you must count on encountering many problems there, frequently, that you probably weren't counting on in the beginning when you decided to run. However, on the other hand, the last four years on the local assembly have given me the opportunity to learn many things, to get to know my home town better, including from the "other side". As a crime prevention assistant I had already negotiated quite often with the local authority and advocated for the interests of Romani residents, which nobody had ever taken any interest in before then.
Q: Why should local residents vote for you in particular as a candidate for PRO! Chomutov?
A: Romani residents should have local assembly members from their community who can act as facilitators of changes of all kinds, who can strive for such changes and fight to benefit not just Romani residents, but all the residents of a city or municipality first and foremost. I want to dedicate my time in office to the same points I did last time, and those are unemployment and coexistence between the majority society and the Romani minority, which I would compare to a swinging pendulum in our town. Sometimes the situation is very escalated, as it was in the case of the Romani man who was shot dead while driving a van here. However, I have never wanted - and I do not want now - to serve just as a defender of the Romani residents, but to function more as a middleman. That's what it was like when I worked as a local crime prevention assistant to the police. For example, when some Romani voters turned to me four years ago and offered to sell me their votes, I mercilessly reported that to the police. Vote-buying is a problem that nobody has resolved here and to support it would be the death of any kind of morale.
Q: What did you manage to change or enforce during your time on the local assembly?
A: We achieved success in a really quixotic effort. Gambling machines in the Chomutov area were one of the matters we were grappling with, but after one year we managed to issue an ordinance banning them that is in effect to this day.
Q: What areas do you want to focus on if you are re-elected?
A: The same ones as last time - I'm still striving to achieve better security and to beef up the police in our region. However, I consider one of the most basic problems to be social housing and housing policy in general. The law on social housing needs to be adopted and the problem with the residential hotels and the so-called apartment mafia needs to be resolved. Some landlords are lining their pockets by charging Romani tenants exorbitant rents. They burn these families with high rents and then anticipate that the Romani tenants will apply for housing benefits that will flow straight to the landlords. Basically they are pretending to be the saviors of these tenants by even renting to them in the first place, but this is just ordinary trafficking in poverty. They don't just charge high rents to Romani people on welfare, but also to those who are employed, because they know that for a larger Romani family it is difficult to lease an apartment at all. It's not just Romani residents who have this problem, though, but also all senior citizens or single mothers for whom housing is becoming less and less affordable.
Q: What can be done about this? Is there any solution to this business that depends on impoverished people?
A: The situation is actually critical. During our own internal surveys here we ascertained that 85 % of the owners of apartment units are either legal entities or private individuals who do not even live in this region. They buy units purely as a business venture, which naturally they are allowed to do, but the problem is that they offer them for these insanely high rents. We have scandals here involving property owners who never pay the fees required into the fund for repairs, whose buildings are disconnected from power and water utilities for lack of payment, and that means human beings are living there in horrifying conditions. My colleagues and I have been doing our best to convince the city to buy out such indebted properties. Unfortunately, we did not get our motion adopted. That will also be one of the matters we will do our best to make progress on if we are re-elected.
Q: The Ústecký Region generally does not have much of a positive image in the media and it comes in almost last place when the quality of life of all the regions of the Czech Republic is compared. The region is reproached for its weak economy. What are the opportunities for improving that aspect in the Chomutov area?
A: Our region is developing now compared to the past, we can find several industrial zones here offering stable employment and there are new job opportunities currently opening up near Žatec. However, we also know it's not enough. The state needs to help us with this, to motivate small business owners, for example, by offering them subsidies. If an employer hires an applicant who has long been unemployed, who is on the rolls at the Labor Office, then the employer could be given a state subsidy. Long-term unemployment is associated with indebtedness and collections proceedings. That's another problem we're grappling with, and not just in our region. The proportion of those falling into the debt trap is growing year on year and that cannot be ignored.
Q: Is there something in the Ústecký Region it would be worthwhile to change?
A: Prices for different fees are rising, for waste disposal, stuff like that - but I don't think that's the main problem. It's more about the fact that the millions of crowns of investment into ice hockey here do not contribute to the development of our town. Certainly it's necessary to support access to sports for young people, but if a private ice hockey club appropriates tens of millions of crowns from a municipal budget during just one four-year term, that means the administrators of the municipality are negotiating in the interests of that private entrepreneur, not in the interest of the residents.
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